Today is my first time participating in the Author Toolbox Blog Hop! The hop takes place the third Wednesday of every month (minus November/December) and focuses on the sharing of resources and learning tools for authors.
Stop by the hop page and check out all the participants and their posts this month! Also check out #AuthorToolboxBlogHop on Twitter.
Since this is my first time on the hop, and I’m just starting, today I’m going to talk about the hardest part of writing a novel: the beginning.
How To Start A Novel
A lot of writers, some much wiser than me, have joked that once you write the beginning of a book, the rest is easy. Of course, if you’ve ever written a book you know that’s a bit of an exaggeration–it’s never easy–but it’s true that you can’t finish a book unless you start it. Sometimes starting can be so daunting, or complicated, or confusing, that it discourages you before you even begin. Where do you start? What’s the best place? What will not only hook the reader but get the story chugging along right out of the gate? And what if you screw up and start in the wrong place?
I once read an editor say that you should write your first chapter and then get rid of the first three pages and start there instead. This may work sometimes, but it’s also particular to the story and it’s assuming that you used too much useless filler at the beginning, which you might not have done. Let’s look at some of the more practical ways you can decide how, and where, to start.
- Start with action. This doesn’t necessarily mean a gun fight, or a car chase, or a burning building. Especially if you’re not writing a book that would have any of those things. Start with something going on, something dynamic and interesting, but most importantly, something that’s significant to the story. Lead off with an event that’s going to make the reader sit up and go “whoa, what’s happening here?” But again, it needs to be important, and appropriate to the story. Starting with overblown action that’s merely a hook and doesn’t connect to the rest of the story is fake, it’s bad writing, and it won’t get you far. The “action” can be as simple as an argument around the dinner table or as jarring as someone dumping a body in a lake.
- Start with something at stake. It’s important right away that the reader is shown why they should care. What’s going on here, and what’s going to happen if our characters fail? Show right away what hangs in the balance, what needs fixing, and how everything is a big hot mess right now and needs to be sorted out. The sooner you let the reader know what they’re supposed to be cheering for, the better. This creates an emotional theme that you will weave through the rest of the story.
- Start with a conflict-in-progress. Don’t start a story days before something important happens, just so you can build a character and make everything look idyllic before it all hits the fan. This can seem like a way to create tension and make people wonder what’s coming, but it can drag and meander really badly, too. Most readers don’t want a story to start slowly like this because it’s difficult for the writer to keep it interesting. Best to jump in with both feet, right away. In this case “throw out the first three pages” is good advice.
- Let your characters be people. It’s okay for your characters to have quirks, interests, dislikes, and habits–that’s what makes them seem real. And it’s good to let some of these things show right away, so your reader can relate to them and they feel like people. Once you’ve set up your starting action, ask yourself how your characters would react in that situation based on their personalities, and let it shine through. Make sure you don’t start your characters out as nothing more than cardboard cutouts. Give them life, and color.
- Introduce you main characters. This seems obvious, but some amateur writers still do it–not introducing your main characters, or at least the main character, right away, or letting them stay a mystery for a few chapters as some sort of artistic choice. This is very rarely going to work out for you. Imagine going to see a movie and ten minutes in the real characters show up, after you’ve already seen the start of someone else’s story. You’re going to be confused, to say the least. If you want your main character to “make an entrance,” you can do that on the first page.
On the other hand, there are some things you should probably steer clear of at the beginning of a novel. I’m not saying you can’t do these things, if they’re done artfully, but as a general rule they’re going to make an agent or editor stop reading after page one.
- World build right away. Especially in genres like sci-fi and fantasy, you might have created an entire world that the readers need to learn about. Don’t do this at the beginning, though. Give readers the minimum they need to know to understand what’s happening right now and spoon-feed the rest of your world to them over the course of the book. A good rule is: write a book as if the reader already knows everything about your world. You can tell them as you go, in the appropriate spots. If you do a huge info-dump on page one, you’re not telling a story, you’re writing a textbook.
- Have a lot of internal reflection. Don’t have a character thinking about how sad/angry/happy they are on the first page. Show them crying, punching the wall, or dancing around their living room singing. Navel gazing is boring, especially if it’s someone we don’t even know and identify with yet.
- Go overboard with physical descriptions. A passing reference to your character’s appearance is really all that’s needed at the beginning, if it’s needed at all. Readers are probably going to picture how they look anyway. There are some genres where appearance is more important and actually part of the narrative–like romance–but spending too much time describing a character from head to toe takes away from the story, especially at the all-important start.
- Start with too many characters. If your book has an ensemble cast, having them all show up on page one is going to be really, really confusing for your reader. Try to focus on one or a much smaller group to start with. And make it abundantly clear from the first paragraph which one is the main character. Readers need to know very fast: who the story is about, what they’re up against, how things will fall apart if they don’t succeed, and why they (the reader) should care.
- There is also a list of things many writers will tell you not to start with: dreams, flashbacks, the weather, prologues, exposition, clichés, people waking up, sounds (BANG BANG BANG)…the list goes on, depending on who you ask. However, I maintain there are ALWAYS exceptions to every rule, and not using (or using) these devices is dependent on the story itself.
So, that’s how you start a novel! Easy, right?! Now writing the rest should be even easier. Or, it could be the hardest thing you ever do. The important part is that you start at all, of course. And you can always go back and fix it, once you know the full story yourself.